Behind the scenes at the Vail Film Festival |

Behind the scenes at the Vail Film Festival

"Year by the Sea" actor Karen Allen, director Alexander Janko and author Joan Anderson at the Vail Film Festival.
Jessica Smith | |

I freaking love film festivals.

First of all, they afford you the chance to see films that you very likely won’t see anywhere else, especially when it comes to shorts or documentaries. It’s a great way to broaden your cinematic horizons in a short period of time.

Second, they put you in touch with some really cool people. As a reporter especially, I find film festivals super fun to cover because I get to sit down and talk to people who are just as passionate about storytelling as I am, and get paid to do it.

I’ve had hours-long conversations in coffee shops and bars during film festival weekends. With actors, directors, producers and cinematographers, I’ve had some amazing talks about creativity and storytelling and all sorts of artsy topics. Mix that together with the occasional thrill of talking with a celebrity, and film festivals are just about the coolest thing. I also love writing about them, being the conduit between the event and the readers, experiencing it and then representing it to other people. It’s its own type of storytelling.

This past weekend was my first time attending the Vail Film Festival. For several weeks beforehand, I did interviews over the phone, talking with actors and directors about films I hadn’t yet seen, learning their motivations and how they got involved with their roles and what it was like on set.

Talking on the phone is one thing, however. Being up close and in person is a completely different experience. Throughout the three days of the festival, I watched these people’s passion projects come to life on the big screen, and afterwards sat down with them again to re-hash our earlier conversations and really dig deep into the creative process behind them.

Here’s what it’s like to be a reporter behind the scenes at the Vail Film Festival.

Conversations unfinished, in a good way

I’m seated on a small leather stool in Joan Anderson’s hotel room, waiting to conduct my first in-person interview of the festival. Actor Karen Allen and director Alexander Janko share the couch, while Anderson takes the chair next to them. It only takes one or two question prompts, and they are off and running.

It feels like being privy to a conversation that’s been going on for years — and it has. It’s easy to tell that all three of them are absolutely in love with the material. For Anderson that’s no surprise — that material is her book, “Year by the Sea,” a mostly autobiographical novel about an emotional time in her life, during which she lived alone on Cape Cod and delved into soul-searching. Yet Anderson’s passion finds an equal match in both Janko and Allen.

When asked what brought them all together on the project, the word “magic” comes up and that seems to be the best explanation. The book “literally appeared on my kitchen counter,” says Janko. He picked it up and couldn’t put it down.

Now that they all know each other, they’ve found all these little ways that their lives have intersected — hometown connections, dates that keep popping up — tiny connections that at the time seemed unsubstantial that now, examined, seem more like kismet.

“It’s sort of inexplicable to me but I really didn’t know Joan’s work, I didn’t,” said Allen, shaking her head. “I read the script and I ran, I really (did), and within an hour I had a copy of her book.” She laughs. “By the time I came in to meet you —“ here she indicates director Janko — “I had finished reading the book as well.”

Their actor/director potential interest meeting went over 45 minutes, when normally they last 15-20, they said.

“I came in with lots of curiosity and interest,” Allen said, “… I left there thinking, ‘oh please let them ask me to do this film.’”

Sitting together in Vail, all three find it easy to slip back into the creative mindset. They discuss different scenes that were or weren’t in the book, why they left them out or why they created new ones. They discuss the relationships between the characters — particularly between Allen’s character and her husband, played by Michael Cristofer — and how the actors related to each other during each of those scenes.

One of the biggest challenges for the filmmakers was to take the book’s interior monologue and translate it to the screen without relying solely on the crutch of voiceovers.

“I had to learn it was showing, not telling,” said Anderson, referencing the difference between writing and filming.

“To Karen’s credit, that’s where her ability as an actor really shines, because (her) performance manifests all the interior monologue that’s in the book that we couldn’t have as dialogue,” said Janko. “So she carries that with the performance.”

Later he added: “They say the devil’s in the details, but truly, the performance is in the little gestures. … All that stuff starts to add up in a powerful way.”

Though I could have kept listening to this conversation for ages, I jumped in with a question. I asked how Allen and Anderson worked together, with Allen playing the Joan-character within Anderson’s own book.

When they first got together, they had a three-hour lunch and “we could’ve sat for six,” said Anderson. The relationship between the two is still strong, obvious in the way that they turn to each other throughout the conversation, adding on to each other’s observations. And Janko isn’t left out. He continually throws out creative comments, which Allen and Anderson feed off of and expand on. The conversation itself is truly a collaborative process, and watching it, it’s not hard to see how the film is the exact same thing. Yes, they’re sitting on a couch in a hotel room in Vail, but actually they’re back on the set, or back in the book or the script, remembering the creative process and examining how exactly they’re going to make it come to life on the screen.

“There’s a huge theme in Joan’s work,” said Janko, referring back to the source material, with a tone of reverence, “the ‘unfinished,’ the idea that we’re all unfinished, which was a beautiful theme.”

That’s how this conversation feels. The project may be finished, but those involved with it are not finished with the experience, the creative energy behind it. And they’re certainly not finished talking about it. We had to cut the conversation/interview short in time to get them to their next panel, to have a similar conversation in front of more fans. And I have a feeling that it’s a conversation that will continue — through emails, through lunch meetings, through the individual mind — for many months to come.

Enthusiasm on and off the screen

I had the privilege of speaking with director/lead actor/writer Blayne Weaver before the film festival about his action film “Cut to the Chase.” It was his first action film that he’d directed — all his previous projects have been romantic comedies. He decided to go for a change of pace and not only that, but to have fun with it.

That fun definitely comes across in the film. It’s a pretty solid action film, especially considering it was shot on an anemic budget of around $100,000 — $20,000 of which was raised through Kickstarter.

Yes, “Cut to the Chase” is an action film, but it’s also a film where you can just tell that everyone — from the actors to the people behind the scenes — are enjoying themselves. As the story unfolded onscreen, the audience alternately gasped and laughed, enjoying those visceral responses that only film (or books) can bring.

Afterwards, Weaver and several members of the crew (including a producer, editor, cinematographer and two actors) jumped up on stage for a Question-and-Answer session.

Weaver employed his usual enthusiasm in answering audience questions, though he laughed and shook his head while the audience sang him “Happy Birthday” after the announcer gives it away.

After this panel (and each of the panels following the rest of the festival’s films) the cast and crewmembers mingle with audience members, graciously answering more questions, listening to reactions and taking pictures with fans. Actor Erin Cahill introduces me to her fiancé Paul, who saw the film for the first time, and beams that he is “so proud.” Cahill stops Weaver as he’s walking by to tell him that he’s “f–––ing awesome.” Actor Lyndie Greenwood hangs back to chat as well, mentioning that she and her boyfriend are in the midst of a road trip. Everyone laughs and smiles, and it feels like any group of friends anywhere catching up and enjoying themselves.

It’s clear that this crew is still just having a good time.

Visceral reactions

There’s more to watch than just films at a festival. While the audience watches the screen, filmmakers (and intrepid reporters) often watch the audience, taking in their reactions and making mental notes for future projects.

The audience at the premiere of “Finding Her” was one of the most reactive I saw at the entire festival. The movie itself is an intense drama, following actor Johnny Whitworth as Christian, a reporter in Brooklyn who covers the case of a missing girl. Maurice McRae plays her grieving father with wide-eyed intensity mixed with vulnerability, while Jeremy Holm and Danny Johnson portray a pair of hardened police detectives more intent on closing the case than solving it.

During the screening, people around me clapped their hands to their mouths, gasped, muttered shocked comments and, just a few times, laughed to relieve the tension.

“The best thing was to see the audience last night,” said director Vlad Feier in our interview the next day. Though he’s seen the film through all of its iterations — from raw footage through the camera monitor to editing on the computer screen to an actual screen for a test audience — watching it in its final form brings a feeling of accomplishment and excitement, particularly as his actors also saw it for the first time.

“To hear from the audience, their opinion about (the) acting, they had just very, very beautiful words,” he said. “Sometimes it’s nice to see the movie from — with the eyes of somebody fresh.”

Actor Johnny Whitworth joined Feier in the day-after interview, fresh from seeing the film on the big screen for the first time. He gave some insight into the experience of working with Feier, who he said has a style different than many other directors.

“He allowed us … as the actors to explore his characters through our artistic vision,” Whitworth said. “It took the pressure off of me, to feel that freedom and have that trust from him. That went a long way.”

Allowing actors the freedom to extrapolate from the written script is a gamble, Feier said, but one he feels worth taking.

“It’s very risky because if that thing wouldn’t work, we wouldn’t have the money to go back and shoot all those things,” he said, which is an example of the contrast between independent film projects and larger big-budget productions. However, he added that he felt this gamble had paid off for “Finding Her.”

Whitworth was also pleased with the final result, adding that even though he knew the whole story, he remained riveted throughout the screening, caught up in the tension of the plot.

Feier, who is also a first-time attendee at the Vail Film Festival, said he enjoyed the down-to-earth feel of the event.

“It’s a festival where it’s not pretentious; people aren’t coming here to make a catwalk or make an appearance,” he said. “It’s nice that it stays true to what they believe this film festival is.”

Passion, creativity and chats over coffee

Among my interviews leading up to the film festival were conversations with Vinessa Shaw and Vassiliki Ellwood about their short film “Crossing the Bar.”

Short films are one of my favorite things about film festivals. Just like comparing a short story to a novel, short films come with an entire set of challenges separate from those of longer, feature films. It’s a special breed of project and one that particularly epitomizes the spirit of independent film.

Short films are shown in blocks at festivals, putting audiences through a wide array of emotions in a truncated time period. After “Crossing the Bar”’s showing, I met up with Shaw — a long-time actor and first-time director — and Ellwood — a rising talent who unflinchingly dove into the deep end of filmmaking by writing, acting in, producing and paying for her own project.

We commandeered a coffee table at the little café attached to the Vail Cascade and proceeded to converse about all things creative, covering writing, writer’s block, filmmaking challenges and all a number of topics in between. The conversation probably lasted a good 30-45 minutes but the time rushed by and it really only felt like five.

It wasn’t an official interview; I didn’t take notes. It was just one of those amazing conversations that happen at film festivals, where people with similar passions connect and the time flies by.

Conclusion — go to film festivals

A lot can happen over three days, and I have more stories in my notes that didn’t make it into this article, which I cherish nonetheless and will no doubt be sharing with friends over coffee and drinks throughout the weeks to come. This was just my experience, one in many, but it’s one that’s common at an event like this. I encourage anyone who loves films, books, storytelling or other artistic pursuits, to seek out events like this, like film festivals, where you will meet other people cut from the same cloth as yourself, and who will be happy to speak with you until your coffee turns cold and the lights go out.

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